State did end with a four-victory streak, albeit scattered from 1989-90 and 2014-15. And Bulldog teams came away with a winning record in Hattiesburg of 3-2 (4-1 scoreboard).
Counting the last three games (1990, ’14, ’15), Southern Mississippi scored just one offensive touchdown and two total TDs in a dozen combined quarters. Their lone TD in 1990 at Scott Field was on an interception return, as the Brett Favre-led offense was stymied.
INVOLVING: You want tight ends involved? You got it on opening night.
Both of QB Dak Prescott’s touchdown passes went to Bulldog tight ends. In the second quarter Prescott rolled to his off-side, forced the only defender to commit against the run and flipped to TE Justin Johnson who’d slid by that Eagle.
The angle was a bit awkward yet the true freshman didn’t panic, got both hands on the ball and turned on in for the five-yard touchdown. Big as scoring his first college points had to be for a true rookie, the play—and one previous—showed why State has such faith in this kid.
Because immediately after Mississippi State had blocked a USM punt for possession on the 21-yard line, Prescott had thrown for Johnson. Who, judging by the throw and Prescott’s body language, went the wrong way with the ball sailing behind him inside the ten-yard line.
But on 3rd-and-10 Johnson got another chance and this time hooked-up correctly with his quarterback for a 12-yard gain. Then came the second-down touchdown play designed just for him. Not a bad debut for a freshman, Mullen said.
“Justin Johnson his first series has two catches and a touchdown, he must think holy cow this college stuff is pretty easy! But he’s had a great training camp.” This was especially so because Johnson was signed as a big receiver, then converted to tight end immediately upon arrival.
Sort of like the case with TE Gus Walley, in fact. He moved to tight end early as a 2012 freshman too but took two years to overcome injuries and get up to speed. It was Walley working along the back of the end zone as Prescott scrambled in the third quarter, getting just enough open at the right time for a four-yard touchdown and 21-10 lead that really put State in charge.
BEARING DOWN: Why the emphasis on tight ends? It was not the specific plan, but an adjustment to counter Southern Mississippi’s defensive approach. One which obviously was designed with WR De’Runnya Wilson in mind.
It was also something State had not planned for.
“We expected cover-three and cover-one,” Wilson said. “They played a lot of 4XZ, that kind of bowed-me out for the single-side receiver.”
If the Eagles succeeded in taking Wilson out of the receiving game, it did leave them vulnerable elsewhere. As in, to tight ends and opposite-side wideout WR Fred Ross. It was a mixed evening for Ross, who made one really great opening gain before struggling to find the handle on other Prescott passes.
Still State changed course and targets to match the unexpected scheme. “That opened up everybody all over the field,” said Wilson who did finish with one catch…for 42 yards, reminding just how dangerous the junior is even against designed defenses.
Plus, Wilson made two really big blocks downfield. The first set up Ross’ 44-yard gainer in fact, and another keyed a 49-yard break by Prescott.
DM “Gus is a guy we’re depending on to be the guy at that position. And that’s always been a huge position for us. I hope that confidence keeps them moving into the season.”
WHERE IN THE DEFENSE IS CHRIS JONES? Speaking of unexpected…defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had a few tweaks of his own to show in game-one. From play-one, in fact.
That’s when first-time starter DT Chris Jones lined up not as a tackle. No, not even at his beloved end position. Jones was a couple steps in back of the line of scrimmage and standing upright about where a middle linebacker might be.
“Coach Diaz made that play up for me. First play of the game he said he was going to run it. It was exciting man, I haven’t done that ever. It was exciting for the defense just to see me back there.”
Jones did go back to the normal d-tackle spot in base defense. But he also got some turns at end in three-man front sets. So, how should Jones be listed now?
“Because I think I’m a linebacker/end anyway! (Diaz) mixing and matching just upped my scheme.”
SPECIAL PLAYS: As much as a trio of special teams gaffes put the Bulldogs behind the proverbial eight ball, plays from those units saved and then settled the victory. The most obvious case was Brandon Holloway’s touchdown return.
Second and maybe more importantly in terms of timing was Beniquez Brown blocking a punt as State trailed again, 10-7. For that matter forcing a punt in the first place was key as the Eagles could have really dug the Dogs in a hole with another score then.
Tyler Sarrazin rolled right on the rugby-style kick but hesitated, as if looking for a chance to try on 4th-and-8. And the irony is, State was not even going for a block at all.
“We’re in ‘safe’ punt,” Mullen said. “They’re rolling out kicking low line drives. And Beniquez blocks that punt.” The coach actually thought DE Ryan Brown had gotten the ball. Still Brown barely seemed to make an effort as, Mullen said, “They just kicked it right into him.”
The ball went out at USM’s 21-yard line and five plays later QB Dak Prescott hit TE Justin Johnson for the five-yard touchdown and a lead State maintained.
SHOW-UP TIME: The other special squads positives came off the foot of Westin Graves (and out of the hold of Logan Cooke). Twice in the third quarter with State facing fourth downs a yard either-side of USM’s 20, he got the call to convert.
His 38- and 37-yarders were both good. “They were just what we practiced. I made sure I took care of my job and do what I practice.”
Placekicking was a spring and preseason mystery, with Mullen only saying it was a three-Dog duel between former walk-on Graves, Devon Bell, and Cooke. Insiders suspected Graves would be the PAT man and that proved true.
Field goals? Nobody knew, not even Graves until Friday and he still was not entirely sure. The specials teams graduate assistant coach told him around 2:00 he would be placekicking but until Mullen gave the go-ahead during the game…
“But I felt he had faith in me and I was thankful for the opportunity.”
Graves did boot a few PATs last season, including three against Southern Mississippi. Ironically that ’14 opener saw his only field goal try all year, a missed 40-yarder. That was in a blowout win. This, was more pressurized as State wasn’t assured of success until the fourth quarter.
Fortunately Graves was good both times, matching a pair of USM field goals in the same quarter to maintain enough margin. And speaking of closer than expected shaves…
“He has so much confidence he might even have to shave tomorrow for the first time,” joked Mullen. “He’s grown-up now!”
WHO PLAYED: A total 14 Bulldogs saw their first varsity action. This included three true freshmen. S Jamal Peters in fact was on the field for the very first play of the season, doing kickoff coverage duty. He did not get in as a safety this time but did get credit for one special teams tackle and ought to have been given a piece of another.
The biggest role by a rookie was of course TE Justin Johnson, with his three catches and a touchdown. And WR Malik Dear got in the game in the second quarter for an end-around rush, for no net gain.
Last season three true freshmen played all year.
Redshirted 2014 freshmen making their debuts were LB Gerri Green, S Brandon Bryant, CB Chris Rayford, OG Deion Calhoun, WR Jesse Jackson, RB Dontavian Lee, RB Aeris Williams, and QB Nick Fitzgerald. One junior college redshirt from ’14 also saw action, DE Will Coleman; though classmate OC Jocquell Johnson did not get to play this time
WR Donald Gray and DE Jonathan Calvin, spring juco transfers, saw action in their first chance too.
WHO DID NOT: CB Taveze Calhoun was held out of the game, missing his first start since an injury kept him out of the 2013 Liberty Bowl. Calhoun started all 12 regular season games that year, then all 13 games of 2014… “The trainers said he was prepared to play and we were ready to get him in there,” Mullen said. “He desperately wants to get on the field. It was a pre-decision no, and he prepared himself not to play.”
This gives OT Justin Senior the active starting-streak with 14 games.
THE DAK LIST: With 15 season and career records already in his account, Prescott has an excellent chance to break some Mississippi State standard every time he throws or runs now.
On opening night the record everyone expected to fall, did. With his two touchdown passes Prescott tied and broke the career standard for touchdown passes. He began one scoring throw behind former teammate Tyler Russell’s 42 from 2010-13. Now Prescott has 43 and will continue moving that mark farther and farther.
Prescott passed 2,000 career rushing yards last night and with 2,005 now is fifth in that quarterback category at State.
Southern Mississippi has played a sizable part in Prescott’s piling up numbers. In his two games against the CUSA club he has thrown for 521 yards and six touchdowns, completing 40 of 64 throws with just one ’14 interception or turnover of any sort.
MSU-ELLANEOUS: In his first start, junior LB Richie Brown was the team’s tackle leader with eight total stops…Brown also came down with a deflected pass for his fifth career interception…All three Bulldog sacks came from defensive ends; A.J. Jefferson with two and Ryan Brown with one…CB Will Redmond’s interception just before halftime was the fourth pick of his career…OLB Zach Jackson had six tackles to tie his career best…Mississippi State has won the last eight regular-season non-conference games…Dan Mullen has yet to lose a scheduled non-conference contest on the road, now with seven wins in as many chances.